I want to start off this article by saying that I'm not telling you that you have to lose weight, but I hear it ALL the time.
A lot of people go to the gym or change their diet with the intent to lose weight. I've also seen many people fail to lose weight at all or quickly lose weight by crash dieting or some other unsustainable, drastic lifestyle change.
What worked for me and what works for most people is gradual change. If you're eating a ton of junk food every day and then decide to stop cold turkey, you probably will last a few days and then binge even worse.
It can also be jarring to start exercising a lot and eating different foods at the same time. Focusing on one or the other first and allowing your body to adapt will help you to sustain healthy habits. Most people don't want to hear that and look for quick "shortcuts" to lose weight immediately, which I'm sorry to tell you never works out. There is no shortcut!
Here are my tips for small, gradual changes you can make that will set you on the right path!
1. Drink more water
You've probably heard this before and I don't want to be redundant, but it's SO important. Our bodies need water to survive - and lots of it! When I was in high school, I drank maybe three glasses of water a day and wondered why I always had a headache, felt sluggish, and my skin looked drier than a lizard. There's no real scientific consensus on how much water we need, because every person is different! Men typically need more than women. While it's possible to drink too much water, it's pretty difficult to do. You've probably heard the eight glasses of water a day suggestion, which is a pretty decent place to start. I tend to drink about 2 liters of water a day, but I drink more or less depending on my activity level, the weather, and various other factors. You also get water from other sources, like other drinks and food, but that's only about 20% of our water intake, so it's important to keep hydrating throughout the day.
2. Cut out sugary drinks
Cutting out sugary drinks was probably the smallest change that had the biggest difference. Typically the only things I drink during the day now are coffee with a little unsweetened almond milk, water, and sometimes wine, which is definitely a sugary drink. While I've cut back on sugary alcoholic drinks and tend to drink either red wine or vodka sodas, I still like to enjoy a glass of white wine or a strawberry margarita every now and again. BUT I cut out other sugary drinks like soda, coffee with sugar, and even sweet seltzers! This will cut down a lot on extra calories that don't provide any nutrition.
3. Increase your NEAT
NEAT stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, which basically means it's all activity we do throughout the day requiring energy (calories) that's not sleeping, eating, or exercising. Doing things like walking to work, cleaning, yard work, and anything where you're moving your body! This is especially important for office workers who sit in a desk chair all day. Increasing your NEAT throughout the work day can make a big difference by burning more calories and also making sure that you're continuing to move throughout the day. They say that sitting is the new smoking - meaning sitting for long periods of time is very bad for our health!
4. Gradually add in cardio and strength training
If you're new to working out or you've never worked out, it's best to increase your activity gradually. Not only could you hurt yourself if you make too drastic of a change, but you'll probably resent the activity. Also, increasing your activity dramatically can often lead to an increase in hunger, which can lead to bingeing. While you probably will need to eat more calories to make up for the energy you're expending during your workout, you can easily eat way more than you need. The best activity to start with is walking. Adding in a 30 minute walk 3 times a week can make the biggest difference! Walking is a low-intensity way to burn calories and increase your heart health. Strength training is also important, because we lose muscle mass as we age. Not only that, but building muscle will most likely increase your metabolism, meaning you'll burn more calories throughout the day if you have more muscle! Starting off slow with strength training is just as important.
5. Adjust your portion sizes and sneak in veggies
This doesn't mean that you should eat less, but you should consider what you're eating and how much you're eating. The American diet typically focuses around meat, which is great because we need protein, but we need a lot more vegetables than we need meat. Try gradually changing your portion sizes so that you're eating more vegetables and less meat. Same thing with smoothies - start of putting majority fruit and a little spinach and gradually adjust the ratio to include more spinach and less fruit. By gradually adding in more vegetables, you are allowing your body and taste buds to adjust. If you start adding in too many vegetables, you'll be fine but your digestive system might have a rough week. Try adding in vegetables to meals you already eat. For example, I started adding in broccoli with my pasta. Another example, I add in peppers and onions whenever I make breakfast hash.
6. Start cooking your own food
Not only is homemade food usually healthier, but it's much cheaper than eating out. When you go to a restaurant, you don't know what the cooks are using and the portion sizes are usually way larger than one meal. Learning to cook at home can be a big challenge, and I suggest starting off simple or getting a new cookbook or using one of the meal-kit delivery services like Hello Fresh or Green Chef (which I use). If you're used to eating out or getting takeout every night of the week, try cooking in one or two nights throughout the week. The same thing goes with not eating processed, premade frozen dinners, which are loaded with sodium. Even ones that might look healthier usually aren't.
7. Start looking at what's actually in your food or beverages
While it's definitely a good idea to get a dietitian or nutritionist to help you, you can do some of your own research into what is actually in the food you're eating. Learn to read the nutrition facts on packages and understand what they mean, because a lot of times products can advertise themselves as low-cal or low-sugar, when a peek at the nutrition facts can reveal disturbing details about what's actually in the product. I especially recommend researching the different names for sugar, because there are a LOT! Understanding food can help you to make healthier choices.
8. Find a way to hold yourself accountable
The truth is that a lot of us have good intentions that we don't follow through with because we're busy or think it's less important. Your health is important, and it's very helpful to find a way to hold yourself accountable. Studies have shown that if you tell people you're going to make change, you're more likely to follow through. For example, if you told people you were going to run a 5k, you're much more likely to actually do it, and the more people you tell the better! Sticking to people you know works for some people, while others find it helpful to share on social media or even join groups on social media where everyone holds each other accountable. I find it helpful to have a friend to make changes with! Having a gym buddy or someone to cook with makes it a lot easier to follow through and also makes it a lot more fun. Find whatever way works best for you!
9. Make goals and write them down
I'm a big believer in goals - but not just any goals. Do you know how many times I've said to myself my goal is to write a book? That's not going to happen if I just make that my goal. Instead try and think of an overarching goal like trying to lose weight or trying to be healthier. Then break it down into SMART goals, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. For example, if I wanted to get in shape for a wedding that's 10 months away, I would come up with a schedule of smaller goals. My first goal would be go for 30 minute walks three times a week starting Week 1.
By making this goal:
Specific (three walks for 30 minutes)
Measurable (three walks for 30 minutes instead of just starting to walk)
Achievable (for me personally, I could start walking three times)
Relevant (walking burns calories, so that contributes to weight loss)
Time-Bound (starting March 1st, pretending that it is almost March 1st)
I am setting myself up for success.
Then my next goal might be I will start running one mile three times a week. Then after that might be adding in two strength training sessions a week. Whatever your goals are, break them down into SMART goals and WRITE THEM DOWN! Writing them down not only helps you to remember, but makes them more official.